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Rules in an Unschooling Family

By Wendy Priesnitz

“Rules” can be a forbidden word in some life learning and natural parenting homes. But I think that it’s not the idea of rules that is problematic – after all, there are many of them in the adult world; the issue is who creates the rules and why.

As a noun, the dictionary defines “rules” in this way: “One of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct within a particular activity or sphere. As in, ‘the rules of the game were understood’.” As a verb, though, there is a different connotation: “To exercise ultimate power or authority over an area and its people.”

In our family, there were a few “rules” but nobody ruled anyone else. The rules were decided upon by kids and adults together, rather than being a creation of the adults designed to control the behavior of the children. Nobody in our family exercised ultimate power or authority over anybody else. That was neither necessary nor tolerable.

So how did we prevent our daughters from running out onto the road before they were old enough to understand the danger? We simply didn’t put them in that situation. What about bedtimes? Rules weren’t needed there either; they quickly learned to go to bed earlier than they were used to if they had to get up earlier than normal the next morning. Food? When they were too little to participate in food buying, Rolf or I purchased what we thought was healthy food and as they got older we discussed the options as a family. And so on. Like pretty much everything else in our family’s life, these were all learning opportunities. And although the learning was interest-based and experiential, the kids weren’t learning in isolation from the adults in their lives.

Most of the few “rules” that we had were generated by the children – or at least the awareness of a need for them was. And they were flexible, as, sometimes, were the rules of the many board games we played – which may have been where they first encountered the idea of rules! By mutual agreement, the game rules were all up for discussion and revision if consensus could be found.     

Most of our family “rules” resembled principles rather than laws, were positive in nature, often about thoughtfulness and courtesy, and made sense to everyone because the need arose from specific situations or problems. A few that I can remember were that everyone must be consulted before plans were made for a trip, that the cooks didn’t have to participate in meal clean-up (resulting in more cook volunteers than clean-up ones), and that promises should be kept. There were no punishments designed; consensus meant that we would all comply. And we mostly did.

I was always surprised that the girls were so willing to follow their two grandmother’s quite different but similarly rigid “rules” for celebrating holidays like Christmas; they realized more than I did that these were traditions as much as they were rules, and that following them for a few days each year made people they loved very happy.

This way of living flowed naturally from our trust in and respect for our children. My experience is that when we respect children’s ability to learn academic subjects, it becomes difficult not to extend that attitude to other aspects of life. After all, if life skills are just as important as academic information, why would we differentiate the process of learning one from the other? And where are the lines drawn and by whom?

Democratic schools have enshrined this principle of democratic decision-making in their school meetings. Everyone – staff and students alike – participates in making the rules and in deciding how to treat those who break the rules. The process results in some one-sided decisions (this is about learning, after all), but most of the time the results demonstrate how wise, fair, and considerate children can be when they’re given the opportunity. It works in our life learning homes, too.

Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine's founding editor, a self-directed learning advocate since the 1970s, the mother of two now-adult life learning daughters, and the author of thirteen books.

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